Shanahan opened his weekly Monday news conference by clarifying controversial comments he made immediately following Sunday’s dispiriting 21-13 loss to Carolina, in which he talked about evaluating players for the future after losing what he described as a “must-win game.” Some (most?) observers interpreted the remarks as Shanahan giving up on the season. A lot of fans would prefer it he just gave up coaching the Redskins.
There’s certainly evidence to support that argument: Washington (3-6) has lost three straight and is facing its third consecutive last-place finish in the NFC East, barring a major turnaround after their bye week. But regardless of how the team finishes, Shanahan, whose contract runs through the 2014-15 season, should be given more time to make this work.
My main reason for still sticking with Shanahan? Robert Griffin III.
Through his first nine games, the rookie quarterback has been better-than-anyone-could-have-imagined good. Shanahan and his play-caller son, Kyle, deserve credit for revamping the offense to accentuate Griffin’s skills as a passer and a runner.
By utilizing many of the option-type plays Griffin ran so effectively in winning the Heisman Trophy last season at Baylor, the Shanahans have done everything they could to aid Griffin in his transition to the NFL. The elder Shanahan displayed flexibility we didn’t know he possessed. He adapted to Griffin instead of trying to shove the kid into an old box.
Some would suggest that any football coach who ever watched a minute of game tape would realize Griffin is unique and that the Shanahans simply did what any coaches would have done.
Perhaps. But that doesn’t mean others would have pulled it off as well.
Although he rarely showed it during his first two seasons in Washington, Mike Shanahan is still considered one of the game’s best offensive coaches. When Shanahan finally hangs up his clipboard, he’ll likely be remembered as one of the football’s shrewdest play-callers. And before Kyle partnered with his pops in Ashburn, he was a fast-rising offensive coordinator with the Houston Texans.
But the Shanahans need a top-notch quarterback to succeed.They veered off course while battling Donovan McNabb and briefly losing their minds in believing that John Beck and Rex Grossman were capable of more than holding on point-after attempts.
Griffin got them back on track. Together, the three men are forging a foundation on which the Redskins can build something significant again. If Mike goes, Kyle would quickly clear out his office, too. Having to start over under a new head coach and offensive coordinator would only hurt Griffin’s development. And the Redskins have to be all about what’s best for Griffin.
For the first time in long time, the Redskins have a quarterback capable of leading them to something big. You get the feeling Griffin could be the one to finally add something new to Joe Gibbs’s old trophy collection. Making any move that could potentially set back Griffin would make as much sense as guaranteeing Albert Haynesworth $41 million.
Assuming Griffin maintains his stellar work ethic and continues to improve, the Redskins could have the game’s best quarterback for a decade or so. Mike Shanahan is playing the biggest role in preparing Griffin for what appears to be a great career ahead of him. That’s undeniable.
The man can still coach. He also has found other pieces to build around Griffin.
A productive running back can be one of a quarterback’s best friends, and Griffin and rookie Alfred Morris are getting along great. Morris is Shanahan’s latest late-round find at running back (Terrell Davis was his best). To say the sixth-rounder runs hard is like commenting that Griffin is fast: It’s accurate but doesn’t tell the whole story.
Morris’s hard-charging approach has proved to be a perfect complement to Griffin’s graceful running style. Griffin and Morris are racking up rushing yards like no other rookies at their position in league history. Shanahan also made the correct calls in free agency on defensive linemen Barry Cofield and Stephen Bowen, who are among few bright spots on the NFL’s 28th-ranked (out 32 teams) defense.
Don’t get me wrong. Shanahan should not receive high marks on all of his player-personnel decisions. The second-to-last secondary couldn’t be worse if it tried. The Redskins’ starting safeties would be far down the depth chart on most good teams, and their first-string cornerbacks are below average on their best days.
Shanahan’s handpicked roster — just 12 players remain on the team from the season before Shanahan arrived — again appears incapable of producing a break-even record, let alone competing for a playoff spot. In the most important area, the win-loss record, he is a disappointing 14-27.
Still, remember: Shanahan inherited one of the league’s worst rosters. His predecessor, Jim Zorn, went 12-20. In the past 20 seasons, the Redskins have missed the playoffs 17 times. That’s a run of futility that can’t be forgotten or ignored. After years of poor drafts and ridiculous free-agent signings, it was unreasonable to think Shanahan could repair the lion’s share of the damage in one, two or even three years. This is a heavy-lifting task that can be solved only by trial and error.
Soon, Shanahan’s experiments will have to produce great results. Shanahan has no doubt about the path he has charted for the team (“I know I’m going in the right direction,” he says confidently), so it had better lead to the playoffs next season. We’re just not there yet.
Before the season began, I figured the Redskins would be a five- or six-win team. Then Griffin stormed into the league like some video-game cross between Joe Montana and Gale Sayers, and anything seemed possible for a moment. Reality has set in again.
In hiring Shanahan, Redskins owner Daniel Snyder wagered that the two-time Super Bowl winner could reverse the direction of the franchise. Clearly, that hasn’t happened yet. But in Griffin, the team finally has a foundation. Changing builders now is a gamble Snyder can’t afford to take.
For previous columns by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.